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The Endemic of Sexual Violence in UK Universities

The number of students subjected to sexual violence at UK universities has remained at significant levels in recent years. In 2021, student website The Tab found that 59% of female students had been subjected to sexual assault while at university, with 7% of sexual assault cases were reported to their institution (1). The failures within the complaints processes and support systems at UK universities has meant that hundreds of sexual assault cases are not being adequately investigated.

A new student-led campaign at the University of Edinburgh, ‘Sex? On Campus’, is calling for a national overhaul of the complaints procedures within higher education institutions. The university has notoriously faced criticism for its failings in investigating perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment, and in some cases discouraging students from contacting the police. Speaking to BBC News, students at the University of Edinburgh revealed that one lecturer remained employed despite numerous accusations of sexual harassment from both students and staff. A former student who was subjected to sexual harassment by a lecturer described the devastating impact on her mental health as a result of the university’s ‘inadequate’ investigation: “The complaint seemed to be taken seriously for a long time until it wasn’t – it just went away”. In another case, a student described having to provide 15 witness statements in order to ‘prove’ an older male student had sexually assaulted her at his flat, only to be told six months on that the investigation had ruled out the possibility of sexual assault taking place. (2)

Reports of sexual violence are not, of course, restricted to the University of Edinburgh. In 2021, a study of 554 male students in the UK found that 63 reported that they had committed acts of sexual violence in the past two years (3). The perpetrators were found to hold misogynistic attitudes, participating in a culture of toxic masculinity that had not been addressed by their respective universities. The study also found numerous failings across universities, both in providing support for those subjected to sexual violence, and in thoroughly investigating perpetrators. It is clear that universities are not doing enough to challenge the toxic male cultures within their student population, and that many young men are entering university with violent and misogynistic views.

As a group, students are more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, yet the failings within complaints procedures mean students are not receiving adequate support following sexual assault. Since 2018, the Office for Students has endeavoured to make crucial changes across UK universities with their Catalyst Student Safeguarding programme, providing £4.7 million in total to improve support systems within universities (4). The Office later reported that although some changes been made following their investment, it had been ‘uneven and slow’. It is clear that failings within UK universities are deeply-rooted and that the surge in violent sexual behaviour is spilling into our campuses. Student campaigns such as Edinburgh’s ‘Sex? On Campus’ are exposing the serious problems of sexual violence and misogyny plaguing UK universities, but they are also stark reminders of how far there is to go in ensuring students across the country are supported and protected.

Charlotte Bell


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